By DARBY HINKLEY, The Alpena News
ALPENA, Mich. (AP) – He knew he wanted to be a priest when he was 13 years old.
Ordained 50 years ago, Father Jim Fitzpatrick, 77, still serves the community by bringing the love and word of God to others, reports The Alpena News.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination, a mass was held recently at St. Bernard’s Church in Alpena, the same church in which Fitzpatrick grew up.
A native of Alpena, Fitzpatrick grew up in the Catholic tradition. Serving God always attracted him, so he decided to become a priest. He attended Saint-Bernard Catholic School and he always admired nuns and priests.
âI decided when I was in eighth grade that I wanted to be a priest,â he said.
After eighth grade he went straight to seminary in St. Lawrence, Wisconsin, where he attended high school and his first two years of college.
He was ordained to Saint Bernard in Alpena.
âIt was the first ordination of a Catholic priest in the city,â Fitzpatrick noted. âSt. Bernard has a great place of affection in my heart. This is where I was baptized, where I made my first confession. It was terribly uninteresting. And, of course, my first communion, confirmation.
He said the bishop came from Saginaw for his confirmation.
âIt was exhausting,â he recalls. âThe catechism consisted of 144 questions to which you had to memorize the answers. “
He is delighted to celebrate in his home church.
“It is very significant for me, after 50 years of priesthood, to be able to celebrate with a Mass of thanksgiving in the parish where I was ordained, with the people of Alpena, whom I love”, said Fitzpatrick.
Over the years, the friendly father has served many congregations and touched many hearts for the Lord.
âAlthough I retired 10 years ago, I came back to Alpena, which is my hometown,â said Fitzpatrick. “And I have helped cover the parishes in the Diocese of Gaylord since I retired.”
He spent six months at Cheboygan covering a parish there, nearly two years at St. Ignatius in Rogers City, and currently he serves St. Rose Parish of Lima in Herron.
âI’ve been there for about two and a half years,â he says.
âFather Fitz was sent to St. Ignatius de Loyola in Rogers City a few years ago to serve our parish during a very difficult time,â said Bernadette Shafto, secretary of St. Ignatius. âWe don’t have adequate words to say how the Lord used him during this time to serve our parish family. He loved us and cared for us like the wonderful Shepherd that he is, and we are always grateful to him.
âI have the impression that he seems to be a shepherd of the people,â said Cindy Wahl, coordinator of the 50th anniversary of his ordination at Fitzpatrick. She has been at Alpena since 2013 and since then she has noticed how drawn people are to Fitzpatrick’s warmth and servant heart.
âFather Jim is a priest of the people,â she said. “And, despite his busy schedule, he’s alwaysâ¦ ready to answer, when someone calls.”
Wahl said he came to her house and administered the sacrament of the sick to her husband, who has been hospitalized and has lung problems. He also administered the sacrament to her because she has arthritis and COPD.
âHe’s the kind of priest he is,â Wahl said. âIt will take time for you. He’s a servant.
Fitzpatrick’s actual ordination date was February 13, but the celebration has been postponed until now due to the pandemic, he said.
Archbishop Paul Russell was due to attend mass on Tuesday.
âHe was part of the Vatican Diplomatic Corps,â Fitzpatrick said of Russell. âHe was an ambassador representing the Vatican in various countries. He has just completed his term in Turkey. And he happens to be in town, so he’s going to preach my thanksgiving mass.
Fitzpatrick was instrumental in the relocation of a new, historically-inspired main altar in St. Bernard, inaugurated in 2015 as part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebrations. The church was the first Catholic church established in Alpena. The altar features parts from the original altar, incorporated into an authentic looking design that resembles the original. He coordinated the altar modification efforts with Russell, who is also from St. Bernard.
âIt was just amazing,â Fitzpatrick noted. âIn four weeksâ¦ we exceeded our target. Can you imagine that? “
He was touched by the generosity of the Catholic community of Alpena.
âSt. Bernard’s, at that time, was not a rich parish,â he recalls. “But it was a sign of the sacrifice of the people.”
He said the church is such an outstanding example of historic Gothic architecture that architecture students from the University of Michigan come every year to study it.
âIt really says something about the beauty of this building,â Fitzpatrick said.
He has rendered many services in the community, including a large number of Catholic funerals at the Karpus-Hunter Funeral Home. Many people in Alpena have crossed paths with Fitzpatrick.
âOur prayer for him, during this celebration of the 50th anniversary of ordination, is that the Lord will give him the strength and the courage to continue to love as Jesus did, to proclaim the truth of the Gospel forever. and to experience the shalom peace of God, âShafto concluded.
Fitzpatrick said he may not be qualified to criticize his own homilies, but he can give some advice to those who choose to listen.
âDuring the 50 years that I have been a priest, I have been convinced thatâ¦ the most important thing that I do during the week is to prepare and deliver the homily,â he said.
A homily is also known as a sermon.
âBecause there is no faith without the word being preached,â he said of The Holy Bible. âIt doesn’t mean that other things aren’t important. It is extremely important for a priest or a minister to be there for the dying, or for the sick, or for the poor, to help them.
Preaching is, however, very important.
âI’ve been told I’m a pretty decent preacher,â Fitzpatrick said. âBut it doesn’t happen without considerable effort. First and foremost, you must love the community you serve. You have to be related to life as they live it.
He said that if the priest or the pastor is not connected with the life of his community, âyou will give boring theology, they will take a little nap, then they will go home.
He said being involved in the community every day, not just Sunday, is essential to being a good community leader.
âOne of the primary responsibilities of a shepherd is to make sure that the homily, or sermon, is encouraging and inspiring faith, to help them get through the next week,â said Fitzpatrick.
âOne thing about Father Jim is that he embraces the reality of what’s going on,â Wahl added. “Like Afghanistan or the persecution, etc., and he points out to us that it is our moral responsibility to try to end it, or at least respond to it … and this is really important to our days.
âPeople go where they are fed,â added Fitzpatrick.
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